The Man in the Tree

The summer heat had long overstayed its welcome, but the chill of autumn was arriving at last. Each day, Milwaukee’s air cooled by a degree or two, and the leaves were stubbornly showing hints of color. Grey clouds began to linger like shy party guests, unsure how long they were allowed.

One afternoon, as the gloomy clouds had finally found their place in the sky, the tree branches had shrugged off most of their leaves, and pumpkins could be spotted on the occasional porch, Carlos was walking home. His neighborhood ran along the shore of Lake Michigan, so he was accustomed to powerful winds and a bit more chill in the air. This afternoon, the breeze created that nostalgic sound of leaves rustling on roads. It was a noise exclusive to fall, and a most pleasant one. But Carlos wore a pair of oversized name-brand headphones which practically swallowed his ears. If a sixteen-wheeler were to approach him from behind, its roaring engine would be rendered silent by his handy noise cancellation. So Carlos missed out on the sweet sounds of Midwestern fall, at least on this particular stroll.

Carlos took a lot for granted. His proximity to the lake. His expensive headphones. His expensive everything. Despite living in a humble house, his family was quite well-to-do. So as he jogged up the walkway to his front steps, Carlos also took for granted the 10-foot inflatable skeleton, put up yesterday by his father, which cost $299 at the department store.

Carlos was of a certain age at which he believed himself too cool for Halloween. This mindset perhaps stemmed from a secret bitterness toward the scrutiny placed upon post-pubescent children with mustaches or deep voices who still went trick-or-treating. Even at age twelve and a half, when he had barely begun to sprout facial hair, he recalled the judgemental glances of adults, and condescending words such as “maybe just take one… leave more for the other kids.” As if the average household didn’t purchase a surplus of bite-sized chocolate bars, surely enough to accommodate an extra age group.

Sadly, the roll-out of spooky decorations, monster-themed sweets, and mass-produced costumes based on the year’s most popular franchises had simply become background noise to Carlos. At the local superstore, he would skim right past the aisle of pumpkin-carving supplies and styrofoam gravestones. He would give a mere chuckle at the adult decor with slogans like witch, please or pass the boo’s. But it was more of an obligatory “I’m old enough to get it” laugh.

Having just returned from a tiresome 8-hour school day, Carlos thrust his painfully heavy backpack on the kitchen counter. He and his mother, who was watching a crime drama in the living room, were both well aware he would not be touching his homework until the late hours of the evening. He went through his usual mindless routine of eating so many snacks he would be stuffed by dinnertime, texting his friend group chat to discuss nothing of substance, and scrolling on social media for at least two hours. He would later complain that his school had assigned him more work than he could possibly fit into his evening. In fairness, the younger generation should not be judged for inheriting such convenient and addictive time-wasting devices. But Carlos made little to no effort to separate himself from his phone.

After dinner, a bit more scrolling, and a C-worthy attempt at his school work, Carlos left the house for a nighttime walk. The air was cooler, the sounds of fall were much harder to ignore, and yards were lit by the orange glow of jack-o-lanterns (most of which were electronic these days.) Carlos, entranced by his music, took his usual route through the neighborhood, hardly aware of his surroundings. As he entered the retail street, full of stores which had promptly closed at 6:00 pm, he dialed down the volume of his headphones. At the end of the road was a pub, often overflowing with tipsy men who had no better way to spend a weeknight.

Carlos cautiously passed the pub, hearing roars of drunk laughter from the inside. He would never admit it, but he was scared of the men he saw through the tinted windows. Even from afar, he could tell they had a certain demeanor, like they were constantly competing to be the toughest man in the room, and they would readily beat up anyone to prove their masculinity. Being a public high school student, Carlos was quite familiar with the types of boys who would one day grow into these men. And he knew they were trouble.

After passing the pub, Carlos reached a hand toward the volume dial on the side of his headphones. But before he could re-immerse himself in music, he heard a most distinct HOOT. He looked in the direction of the sound, and saw the upper portion of a tree moving rather vigorously, more than the surrounding trees. It was too dark for Carlos to make out the details of the commotion, and this tree still had plenty of unfallen leaves. HOOT. It took all of five seconds for Carlos to deduce that an owl was in the tree. He had never seen an owl in his neighborhood, but he was not shocked. He knew what an owl sounded like. He knew they roamed at night. But why was it shaking around so much? Perhaps it had caught some prey?

HOOT. This one was a bit more strained. Carlos slowly approached the tree, which was in the corner of a run-down neighborhood park, hardly ever used, and certainly vacant at this hour. There was a brief moment of silence. The treetop was no longer shaking. Carlos anticipated another HOOT. But instead, he heard something most unexpected from a treetop in an empty park at 10:25 pm. He heard a voice.

There ya go, that’s how you keep your beak shut, Rylo.” The voice was young and old at the same time. It was frail, yet commanding. It had a painful raspiness, but true fervor.

“Hoo-oot.” The owl, evidently named Rylo, responded with a human-like amount of sarcasm. There was genuine sass in this hoot.

“You stupid, ungrateful, good-for-nothing-”

HOOT.”

“You’re ruining everything, Rylo.”

HOOT.”

“Someone’s gonna-” The voice stopped. Carlos could tell he had been spotted by just how abruptly this pause occurred. His gut instinct was to continue walking, pretending he hadn’t heard this bizarre exchange between a man and an owl. But another part of him, one which had been buried for quite some time, wanted nothing more than to know the full story of the stranger in the tree. A childlike curiosity ignited. Carlos stepped closer to the tree. He removed his headphones entirely, letting them rest on his neck.

“Is everything okay?” Carlos asked. It seemed the only normal thing to say at the moment.

“Yeah,” the voice responded reluctantly, and a bit awkwardly. “Um. Everything’s fine. I’m alive. I’m guessing you heard the bird too?”

“Yes, I did.”

“Well he’s fine too. And alive. So you can keep moving.”

“Why are you in a tree?”

“Fair question. Um, well, my bird was stuck up here. And, y’know, I climbed this tree to get him. And I got stuck up here too, and… look, kid, I’m fine now. I’ll come down any second.”

“Okay. You don’t need a hand?”
“Nope.”

There was silence. The stranger was clearly making no attempt to come down from the tree. His story was obviously bogus. How could an owl possibly have gotten stuck in a tree anyways?

“You’re still there, aren’t you?” asked the voice, irritated.

“Yup,” said Carlos. There was no point in being dishonest.

“What will make you leave?”

“That’s kinda rude of you to ask,” said Carlos, trying his best to match the speaker’s snarky matter-of-factness.

“Well it’s kinda rude of you to stand there, intruding on my business.” Mild annoyance was quickly becoming anger.

Carlos was unsure what was actually happening in the treetop, but he was confident it was far from business. He could have said this aloud, but decided to keep quiet. Not because he feared the man in the tree, but because it was simply better to be respectful. He feared the neighborhood drunkards because they lacked reason, but the man in the tree somehow spoke with a sense of rationality. He could be trusted.

A full minute of silence occured. Carlos listened anxiously for any more sounds from the treetop. Meanwhile, the hidden individual waited impatiently for any sound of Carlos walking away. The stalemate ended at last when Carlos saw feet emerging from the clusters of fragile red leaves. Something was especially off about these feet, and the same was true for the body that followed. In the darkness, Carlos saw what appeared to be an especially gaunt gentleman, wearing an unplaceable outfit. But as the man stepped closer, it was revealed that he wore no outfit at all. He not only lacked clothes, but also skin, muscles, organs, and every part of a human body besides bones. The man was, in fact, a skeleton.

Happy now, kid?” The skeleton’s voice echoed with power. Each word came forcefully from his jaws, carrying the weight of many lifetimes.

Carlos stood motionless, staring into the empty orbits where the skeleton once had eyes. He observed how the bones across his body floated inches apart, held in place by some invisible force. They moved ever-so-slightly, as if the skeleton was breathing. Carlos, now stricken with instinctual fear of the bizarre and unknown, had an urge to sprint away and never look back. But his burning curiosity was brighter than ever, and he wanted desperately to claim this experience for himself. He envisioned the reactions of his friends and family if he could somehow prove he had seen a walking talking skeleton. Even more human than Carlos’ fear was his desire to be special. He wanted to be the one who had this encounter. And for that reason, he stayed put.

“Do you mind if I ask your name?” Carlos concealed his nervousness. He had a billion more pressing questions, but this one seemed the most polite.

“My name…” the skeleton was taken aback. “My name is Zokulus.”

“That’s an awesome name.” Carlos meant it.

“Yours?”

“My name is Carlos.”

“That’s a decent name.” Zokulus didn’t mean it.

“So, um… do you have an owl?” Carlos gestured toward the tree.

“Oh yeah. Shit.” It seemed Zokulus had sincerely forgotten his bird. He clapped his hands, producing a loud noise unlike anything Carlos had heard before. The sound of bones colliding was unsettling. “Rylo, will you come along?”

Carlos, naively expecting to see a fully feathered owl, was shocked yet again when a creature made purely of bones flew to his owner’s arm. Rylo’s proportions were unlike that of a living owl. If Carlos hadn’t heard the hoots earlier, he would never have guessed the species of the rather awkwardly-shaped bird he was now studying intently. Seeing the skeleton of an owl reminded him of seeing a hairless cat; it was simply not the same creature without its usual volume.

“Nice to meet you, Rylo,” said Carlos. For whatever reason, he assumed a skeleton owl could understand English better than a living owl, perhaps because Zokulus had been speaking to his pet so casually.

“The bird doesn’t know what you’re saying,” said Zokulus plainly. “He’s a bird.”

“Well,” said Carlos, slowly becoming more comfortable around the two skeletal beings. “There’s not much about this situation that’s normal, so I just thought-”

“Not much that’s normal,” scoffed Zokulus. “Let me… ya know what, Carlos, let me tell you something. I’ve been wanting to get this one off my chest for a while, so here it goes. Humans are the ones who aren’t normal. Let that sink in, kid. Because it’s true.”

“Okay,” replied Carlos. He felt the mild sting of a playground insult.

“Oh, I’m not finished,” said Zokulus. “Let me explain. Do you realize how short life is? You’re only alive for seventy years or so. Maybe less. Then you die, Carlos. And the rest of your existence is spent being dead. You think life is the main event, but no. It’s just the tutorial.”

Now Carlos had some food for thought. He pondered Zokulus’ words. Humans generally did consider life the main event. Not much was openly discussed about post-life existence, aside from the general idea of Heaven. But the skeleton’s points made sense. If the afterlife lasted for eternity, a person’s time alive was actually quite insignificant.

“Wow,” was all Carlos could say.

“Damn straight,” said Zokulus, proud of his well-articulated points. 

“So… will I become a skeleton when I die?” asked Carlos.

“You’re really gonna make me get into this, aren’t you?” asked Zokulus. He spoke with the energy of someone angrily raising an eyebrow.

“Did you have something better to do in the tree?”

“Actually, yes. I was waiting for some of those idiots from the bar to come stumbling out so I could scare them.”

“Do skeletons actually go around scaring people?”

“Only as a pastime. And believe me, those guys are the most fun to scare.”

“So… will I become a skeleton?” Carlos felt a rush of excitement. He was close to solving the mystery of life after death.

“Maybe,” answered Zokulus. “Here’s how it goes. Odds are, you’ll become a ghost. Folks with unfinished business become ghosts. The soul leaves the body and just floats around. You usually choose to become a ghost if you want revenge on an enemy, wanna stay close to your loved ones, or just like messing with people.

“But if your soul is seriously done with this place and you’ve got nothin’ left to do in the world, then it goes somewhere else. Nobody knows where. But that’s when zombies come into the picture. Dark forces will take over soulless bodies and turn them into zombies. Happens all the time.

“And then there’s the final option. Becoming a skeleton. Most don’t even realize it’s a possibility. But if you keep your soul in your corpse, eventually you’ll be able to control it. You gotta stay in the tomb for a little while, but you’ll slowly figure out how to move your body again. Usually by then, flesh and organs have decayed, and there’s nothin’ left but bones.”

“So…” said Carlos, processing all the unbelievable information he had just received. “You have the same soul you had when you were alive?”

“Yup,” answered Zokulus.

“That’s crazy.” Once again, Carlos was able to absorb these big ideas, but was not especially good at responding insightfully. “Wait, there’s only three options? Ghost, zombie, or skeleton?”

“Yep, those are the choices,” said Zokulus.

“But aren’t there more undead monsters? What about vampires?”

Vampires aren’t even in the same conversation,” groaned Zokulus. “That’s like… Carlos, imagine if someone was talking about all the different apes, and then you asked what about elephants?”

“Oh…” Carlos felt ashamed of his ignorance. “Are mummies an option?”

“I mean, you could become a mummy, sure. If you wanna appropriate Egyptian culture.”

“Is a mummy just a zombie wrapped in Egyptian bandages?”

Linen cloth. But yeah, pretty much.”

“So, what makes a person like you decide to stay in your body?”

“Well,” said Zokulus, producing a scraping noise as he stroked his chin. “I wasn’t great, morally speaking, in my days as a human. I had a hunch the afterlife wouldn’t be too kind to me.”

“You could’ve been a ghost.”

“I didn’t wanna haunt anyone. Figured I’d done enough bad deeds already.”

“I’m sure you weren’t that bad.”

“I was a tyrant who enslaved thousands of people. I sent innocent citizens to their deaths over my petty feuds. Children grew up without mothers and fathers because of my heinous crimes. Believe me, Carlos, I was that bad.”

On account of shock and fear, Carlos literally gulped. The name “Zokulus” surely dated back to the eras of tyrants and constant imperial expansion, but it was surprising to hear that this very skeleton had been an actual dictator. Carlos was in the presence of a powerful figure, somehow forgotten by documented history (unless he’d missed the section of his textbooks about Zokulus’ enslaved nation.) Knowing about the wicked actions committed by this being of brittle bones made Zokulus all-the-more intimidating. But Carlos maintained a level head.

“Have you changed?” he asked simply.

“Of course,” said Zokulus. “That was thousands of years ago. Everyone does idoitic shit during their lifetimes. The real learning comes after you die. Let me tell you something, Carlos. I inherited power, and therefore I was powerful. I did awful things because, at the time, I didn’t know they were awful. War was the only language humans had at that point, and I just learned to speak it.

“Point is, like most folks, I did what was expected of me. And you’ll do the same. You’ll live an average life. You’ll get a job that pays decently, but doesn’t fulfill you. Odds are, you’ll stay in this town, if not this neighborhood. You’ll have a family, and they’ll make you happy and complete and all that. But one day, when you’re in a hospital bed, or suffocating in a burning car, or in my case, bleeding out from the wounds of six different swords… You’ll wish you did so much more. You’ll beg and plead for more time, because those fleeting seconds before death give clarity to every mistake you made in life.

“And the great thing is, ya do get more time. You’ll make new friends. I met Rylo here long after I died. You’ll find a new job. Nowadays, I work as a speech-writer for Lord Osteo, ruler of Skeleton Island in South America. The humans think there’s an uncontacted indigenous tribe living there, but it’s really just a bunch of undead guys like myself. We’ve got our own society, everyone has a role… Being dead is really a lot like life, but it lasts way longer. I mean, I’ve been a skeleton so long, I can’t even remember what it feels like to have flesh. Five senses are a luxury, Carlos.

“But if life has any meaning at all, it’s to show us that what feels like forever isn’t terribly long, now is it? I guess one day, the powers-that-be will say I’m done being a skeleton, and they’ll take me to my next stop, whether that’s above or below.”

“I don’t think you’ll go to Hell, Zokulus,” said Carlos, realizing the strangeness of his words as he spoke them. “I’m sure you get to be undead for a reason. To prove you learned your lesson from life, maybe. It seems like you did. Unless you still enslave and kill people?”

“Oh no,” chuckled Zokulus. “Scaring is as far as I’ll go.” Right on que, a 6 ‘4 man emerged from the pub, thrusting the door open with unnecessary force, holding a gold-rimmed can in his hand. He wore a shirt with the faded logo of a motorcycle company, despite only driving a minivan. Even while intoxicated, he moved with utter cockiness, trying to take up as much space as physically possible. Zokulus turned and looked at Carlos. His unmoving eyeholes managed to convey a wink. Then he spun around, stepping before the forty-something white man, and struck the type of pose found on posters for vintage horror films. His arms held high in the air, his mouth stretched wide, he released a domineering roar. The man dropped his drink and scrambled away in utter terror, blubbering indistinguishably, and tripping twice before turning the corner.

Zokulus looked back at Carlos, who, through politeness and curiosity, had made his way into the old skeleton’s heart, or lack thereof. The two of them stood on the sidewalk, lit only by dim street lamps in need of new bulbs. Two men, one with centuries of wisdom, one who had barely cared to seek knowledge before this day, laughed at the simple prank which had just taken place. An unlikely but heart-warming friendship certainly could have bloomed, but the undead have rules, and Lord Osteo would not be pleased to find one of his employees spilling secrets to a random boy in another continent. So without another word, Zokulus gave Rylo a silent command. The bird latched its white talons onto the spine of its owner, and lifted him off the ground. They flew beyond the trees, and then beyond the clouds. Zokulus expected a “Wait, don’t go!” from Carlos, but the boy only watched, perhaps processing what he’d just experienced, or perhaps wondering if the encounter had even happened. After Zokulus completely faded from view, Carlos continued his walk without caring to place his headphones back on his head. He left his ears exposed to the faint sound of waves, the autumn wind, and the pleasant noise of fallen leaves scraping the streets.